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A Virtuous Circle Political Communications in Postindustrial Societies Pippa Norris Book DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511609343 Online ISBN: 9780511609343 Hardback ISBN: 9780521790154 Paperback ISBN: 9780521793643

Chapter 14 - A Virtuous Circle? pp. 309-320 Chapter DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511609343.015 Cambridge University Press

CHAPTER 1 4

A Virtuous Circle?

his final chapter highlights the major findings of this study and offers an alternative interpretation of the evidence whereby the process of political communication can be understood as a Virtuous circle', a ratcheting process that over the long term gradually reinforces the activism of the active. This interpretation remains theoretical, for we lack direct proof, but it does make sense of the consistent patterns found throughout this study. The conclusion echoes an earlier era of political-communication research of the Columbia school, unfashionable in recent years, when the news media were widely believed to exert a positive force in democracy. The media malaise theories discussed in this book claim that coverage of public affairs by the news media contributes to civic disengagement, including ignorance of public affairs, disenchantment with government, and political apathy. In understanding such accounts of media malaise, it helps to draw a clear distinction between the explanans and explanandum. Various authors agree about the effects of media malaise but differ regarding the reasons for that phenomenon. The modern idea of media malaise originated with the Langs in the 1960s, developed with the work of Michael Robinson in the mid-1970s, and gained credibility as it was subsequently expanded, with variations on the theme, by several American and European scholars in the 1990s. That idea spread more widely because it fed a mood of self-doubt and angst in contemporary American journalism. In recent years, dissenting voices in the literature have been overwhelmed by the current popularity of media malaise theories. Many accounts imply a general pattern that, if true, should be evident across postindustrial societies. Others provide a narrower focus, suggesting a more purely American
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CONCLUSIONS

phenomenon. Many stress the distinct roles of television journalism (Robinson) and newspapers (Miller). Yet another perspective, not directly examined in this book, looks even more broadly at the associations among watching television entertainment, social trust, and engagement in voluntary associations and community affairs (Putnam). Another strand in the literature criticizes the political-marketing techniques used by politicians, spin-doctors, image consultants, and pollsters. As stressed in Chapter 1, although the term originated with Robinson, there was no single canonical theory of media malaise that influenced all subsequent writers. Rather, there are multiple perspectives in the literature. But by the 1990s a broad consensus had emerged that some, or all, practices in political communication have contributed to public disenchantment with civic life. Understanding media malaise matters because concern about the impact of the news media has rippled out well beyond a small circle of scholars to become fashionable among policy-makers, journalists, and broadcasters. In the United States there is much self-doubt within the industry; the majority of American journalists believe, for example, that the press pays too little attention to complex issues, blurs the distinction between reporting and commentary, is out of touch with the public, and is too cynical. 'A large majority of news professionals sense a degradation of the culture of news,' Kovach and Rosensteil suggest, 'from one that was steeped in verification and a steadfast respect for the facts, towards one that favours argument, opinion-mongering, haste and infotainment.'1 Instead of covering political events, such as the Lewinsky affair or gun violence or the GOP primaries, American journalism seems increasingly transfixed by American journalism, looking at itself obsessively in an endless hall of mirrors. As night follows day, the first wave of stories concerns the 'real' event, and the second bemoans how poorly the news media covered the event. In Europe, too, although the debate seems more muted, there are periodic bursts of angst about the standards of journalism, often surrounding coverage of particular events by the more aggressive paparazzi and checkbook tabloids. Concern about the news media has also spread to the public.2 According to the 1995-97 World Values survey, less than a third of the public had any confidence in the press in Britain, Sweden, Denmark, The Netherlands, Austria, and Germany, and similar proportions trusted television in Switzerland, Germany, Australia, and the United States.

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A VIRTUOUS CIRCLE?

THE EMERGENCE OF POSTMODERN COMMUNICATIONS

Before evaluating how well the news media carry out their democratic functions, we need to agree on some common normative standards. Some theories of representative democracy suggest that the news media should provide a civic forum in which to hear serious and extended political viewpoints from all voices in society, that they should perform a watchdog role to check abuses of civil and political liberties, and that they should serve as mobilizing agents to encourage learning, stimulate interest, and promote participation in public affairs. To analyze whether the news media perform these functions, we can draw distinctions among the production, content, and effects of political communication. The central thesis of this book is that although the structure of the news industry and the process of political campaigning undoubtedly have been altered almost beyond recognition since the postwar era of wireless airwaves, inky linotype, and town-hall meetings, it is far less clear that those developments have eroded the standards of political coverage, still less contributed to political malaise. Instead, I argue that in Europe and in the United States, because of a Virtuous circle', attention to the news media gradually reinforces civic engagement, just as civic engagement prompts attention to the news.
T H E NEWS INDUSTRY

Part II of this book has described how the structure of the news industry has been transformed in recent decades by technological, economic, and political developments common to postindustrial societies. Rather than new media displacing the old, these developments have led to proliferation and diversification of news sources, formats, and levels. There is widespread concern that serious, in-depth reporting about government, public-policy issues, and international affairs has been increasingly displaced by 'infotainment' and 'tabloidization', with more and more human-interest stories about popular celebrities, consumer affairs, and scandal. Yet the most plausible interpretation of the evidence is that many postindustrial societies have seen diversification in the channels, levels, and formats of political communication that have broadened the scope of news and the audience for news, at both highbrow and popular levels. Newspaper sales have not declined in postindustrial societies; the proportion of regular readers of European newspapers has doubled in the

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CONCLUSIONS

past three decades, and the social profile for readers has broadened. If the definition of 'news' and the scope of 'news' stories have expanded along with the proliferation of diverse news outlets, so that today we often see less coverage of events in the White House, No. 10, and the Kremlin, and more about the latest cancer research and developments in the popular arts, the concern about that tendency may arise primarily from the fact that it poses a challenge to old-fashioned (male?) assumptions about what constitutes 'real' or hard news. The amount of news shown on public-service TV in OECD countries has tripled over the past thirty years, not contracted. Three-quarters of all Europeans watch TV news every day, up from half three decades earlier. Even in the United States, the country where criticism of the quality of journalism has been harshest, C-SPAN coexists with MTV, the New York Times with the New York Post, the Jerry Springer show with Nightline, and the Atlantic Monthly'with Playboy. The diversification of the market has meant that in many sectors, quality journalism, serious electoral news, and thoughtful coverage of policy debates have remained strong and flourishing, along with the tabloid trash.
POSTMODERN CAMPAIGNING

Campaigns have been transformed by these changes in the news industry and also by the widespread adoption of professional political marketing. As with developments in the media, new forms of electioneering essentially supplement, rather than replace, older techniques. This book conceptualizes the evolution of these developments as stages, representing the premodern, modern, and postmodern eras of campaigning. The traditional techniques of door-to-door party canvassing, town meetings and local hustings, volunteer grassroots labour, community mobilization, and leadership tours with standard stump speeches, supplemented by a partisan-leaning press, were the primary forms of campaign communication at least until the 1950s and the rise of the television age. The modern campaign, which predominated from the early 1960s until the late 1980s, was characterized by greater professionalization as more specialist advisors were employed by central party headquarters and the techniques of public-opinion polling and market research were brought into political marketing. The campaigns lengthened and costs rose as volunteer labour was displaced by hired guns. The central focus of attention became the publicity generated in television studios. The development of political-marketing techniques raised fears of a widen312
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A VIRTUOUS CIRCLE?

ing rift, with the politicians, surrounded by a coterie of professional advisors, increasingly isolated from direct contact with the voters. The growth of postmodern campaigning, which began in many countries with the rise of the Internet and other new media in the 1990s, has the potential to restore some of the older forms of campaign interactivity. Innovations such as party intranets, online discussion groups, party Web sites, e-mail, and even 'old' media in new guises, such as talk radio, can be characterized as located somewhere between the traditional and modern forms of campaigning. The new types of interactivity are still in their development stages, and such channels have progressed much further in those societies that are more fully wired, such as the United States, Sweden, and Finland, than in others like Italy and Portugal. But analysis of Internet users suggests that the newer forms of campaign communication are supplementing the older ones, rather than replacing them. Even in the United States, the proportion of citizens active in the traditional forms of campaigning has remained remarkably stable in the postwar era. Political uses of the Internet, while primarily further empowering the most active, add another layer of complexity to elections.
T H E IMPACT ON C I V I C ENGAGEMENT

How have structural developments in political communications influenced political knowledge, trust, and mobilization? The more pessimistic scenario suggests that the news media in general, and television news in particular, have fuelled political disenchantment. Much of the literature, however, has focused on changes in the news industry without looking directly at public opinion. The analysis in this book suggests two main conclusions. The weaker version of the media malaise thesis claims that a consistent pattern of negative news erodes specific support for particular leaders, governments, and policies - for example, that extensive coverage of violent crime can increase support for the death penalty, or that bloody pictures of school shootings can diminish support for the National Rifle Association. From the evidence reviewed here, that weaker claim does seem convincing. Chapter 9 has shown that a persistently Euroskeptic press did damage early public confidence in the euro. News coverage of European Community affairs usually was quite limited, and most of the routine European Union business went unreported. When EU affairs were covered, however, newspapers and television tended to provide a steady diet of bad news about Brussels. The extent of the bias was by
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CONCLUSIONS

no means large, but it was consistent. When the public read stories about the EU, they were more likely to be accounts of inefficiency, incompetence, and failure than of European cooperation and good governance. Moreover, that influenced the public: The monthly fluctuations in the direction of news coverage of the euro were significantly related to public opinion on the issue. Negative news probably reduced public support for the new currency. But does attention to the news media appear to produce any deeper signs of civic malaise in Europe or in the United States? After all, public support for particular issues, leaders, and governments can be expected to rise and fall as part of 'normal' politics, without thereby undermining people's deep-rooted faith in the political system. The stronger version of the media malaise argument claims that news coverage directly harms public engagement - for example, that strategic frames and negative news activate political cynicism. The second major conclusion from this study runs contrary to the media malaise thesis. The survey evidence from the United States and western Europe consistently fails to support the claim that attention to the news media in general, and television news in particular, contributes to deep-rooted indicators of civic malaise and erosion of diffuse support for the political system. Successive tests have established that those most exposed to the news media and party campaigns consistently proved more knowledgeable, not less; more trusting towards government and the political system, not less; and more likely to participate in election campaigns, not less. These positive associations were found in a succession of models, in Europe and in the United States, despite a battery of structural and attitudinal controls for factors that plausibly could have affected media use and civic engagement. The association between use of the news media and civic engagement often was only modest. Given the limited measures available to gauge news exposure, however, the fact that the results proved significant and remarkably consistent across different data sets, in different years, in different countries, and with different dependent variables, increases our confidence in the reliability of the results. No single finding can be regarded as decisive, for there is no elegant and succinct way to test media malaise, but the weight of the cumulative evidence was ultimately persuasive. Therefore, even if we accept, as a working assumption, the media malaise claim that the structures in the news industry and the patterns of political coverage have changed in recent decades, that still does not
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A VIRTUOUS CIRCLE?

mean that the news media contribute to civic malaise. Let us assume the worst, namely, that political news has become more negative, that campaign stories commonly adopt a strategic frame, that the popular press and tabloid TV devote more attention to gaudy sensationalism than to serious public affairs, and that the Internet has far more sites devoted to porn than politics. Yet, even if we go along with the multiple criticisms of modern journalism, the survey evidence demonstrates that attention to the news media is not associated with public ignorance, political cynicism, and electoral apathy. If there have been systematic changes in journalism, they have not had the dismal effects on civic engagement that so many fear. A VIRTUOUS CIRCLE? Certain potential criticisms of this argument deserve special attention. One response to the European evidence might be that perhaps the media malaise effect is a case of 'American exceptionalism'. After all, previous studies in Europe had found little empirical support for media malaise.3 Differences in news systems, historical experiences, and political cultures could perhaps have made the United States different from other postindustrial societies. But a direct examination of survey evidence from the United States has provided no support for the media malaise thesis at the individual level. Those most exposed to the news media and campaigns in America proved to be more politically engaged, not less, a pattern remarkably similar to that in Europe, thus strengthening the conviction that we have uncovered reliable patterns that are sufficiently robust to permit generalizations, and indeed can be found in many postindustrial societies. Attention to the news media proved to be either neutral or positively linked to a wide range of indicators of civic engagement in the United States and Europe. People who regularly watched, read, or surfed for news usually had greater political knowledge, trust, and participation, even after controlling for social background and prior political interest. Another potential criticism might be that the findings could be due to methodological artifact. It could be argued that we have analyzed only individual-level effects of exposure to the news media among the most regular readers and viewers, whereas there might well be pervasive and diffuse effects on society as a whole. But when long-term trends in American public opinion were examined, they provided no support for the diffuse theories of media malaise that suggest that the news
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CONCLUSIONS

culture became more cynical after the events of Vietnam and Watergate in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Attention to campaign coverage and levels of campaign activism proved largely stable, rather than experiencing a gradual erosion over time, or a sudden decline, in the postVietnam years. Americans' trust in government has fluctuated sharply in recent decades, with peaks and troughs, but it has not experienced a steady and continuous fall. Electoral turnout and interest were relatively low in the early 1960s, then experienced a higher plateau in the heated politics of the 1960s, but returned to the status quo ante in subsequent decades. Given the slippery periodization of the diffuse media malaise thesis, some of the trends could perhaps be interpreted as supporting that thesis, but the timing of events remained loose and untidy, and the evidence was far from consistent across all the indicators of civic engagement in America. The last and potentially most telling criticism of the interpretation presented in this book is that there are serious problems in using crosssectional surveys to examine the causal direction of dynamic processes. That is true. Correlation, no matter how consistent, does not equal causation. Controlled experiments offer the only satisfactory way to resolve causality, and that probably will be the most productive avenue for further research. As mentioned in the introduction, the consistent association between use of the news media and civic engagement is open to three alternative explanations. Critics could argue that the associations established in this study could flow in a single one-way direction, because of a selection effect, from prior political attitudes to media use. In other words, because some people are interested in public policy and international affairs, they could decide to read the New York Times and watch CNN. That is indeed plausible, especially given the range of choices about where to go and what to do in a multichannel multimedia environment. Alternatively, because of a media effect, the direction of causality could flow one-way from habitual news use to civic engagement. Someone who regularly watches the evening news or reads a paper or listens to the radio (for whatever reason) could be expected to learn more about public affairs, reducing the costs of political involvement, such as casting a vote. But it is unclear theoretically why either of theseflowsshould operate only in a single direction, and it seems more plausible and realistic to assume an iterative and interactive process, with two-way flow. That is to say, we probably do turn on C-SPAN, skim the Sunday papers, catch
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A VIRTUOUS CIRCLE?

the radio headlines, or surf for online news because of our prior interest in learning about events in Washington, London, and Brussels, because we are already engaged in the political process, and because of long-standing news habits. But at the same time, over the long term, repeated exposure to the news seems likely to improve our understanding of public affairs, to increase our capacity and motivation to become active in the political process, and thereby to strengthen civic engagement. Far from seeing a negative impact, the most convincing way to account for the persistent patterns emerging from this study is that attention to the news media acts as a virtuous circle: The most politically knowledgeable, trusting, and participatory are most likely to tune in to public-affairs coverage. And those most attentive to coverage of public affairs become more engaged in civic life. This interpretation remains theoretical, for we cannot prove causation, but it is fully consistent with the association we have established between news exposure and positive indicators of civic engagement. If the actives are further activated by political communications, why are the apathetic not similarly reinforced in their apathy? The simplest answer would be that those less engaged in politics are naturally immunized against the influences of news media messages by a triple process: First, when those who are less interested encounter political news, they are more likely to turn over, turn off, or click to another site. In a multimedia multichannel environment, with a remote or mouse in hand, the idea of a captive audience is as passe as the phonograph. Why listen to pundits and pollsters when there are so many alternative channels and programs? Second, even though some of the disengaged may continue to watch and read simply from routine habit, because they lack prior interest they probably pay little attention to political coverage. Lastly, even if they watch and pay attention, the disengaged are less likely to regard political news as credible, because trust in the news media and in government go hand in hand.4 The result is that the ratcheting effect of political communication functions in a positive direction. Focusing only on the structure of the news industry or on the content of coverage, while neglecting the reaction of the audience, leads to many fundamental misconceptions inherent in media malaise accounts. The public is not passively absorbing whatever journalists and politicians tell them, not simply taking everything at face value. Rather, because of increased cognitive skills and greater diversification of media outlets, the public is actively sifting, sorting, and thereby constructing political impressions in line with their
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CONCLUSIONS

prior predispositions. This conceptualization harks back to an earlier tradition that had long emphasized the role of reinforcement in political communication. A virtuous circle represents an iterative process gradually exerting a positive impact on democracy. The causal steps in this process cannot be demonstrated, any more than we can examine the lifelong socialization process whereby the family, workplace, and community shape political attitudes. The effects are understood as diffuse, operating cumulatively over a lifetime of exposure to the news, rather than being specific to the impact of particular media messages. Nevertheless, this theory provides a reasonable interpretation that makes sense of the consistently positive association between use of the news media and civic engagement encountered throughout this study. This view also receives support from some findings in experimental research in which groups in Britain were exposed to positive and negative television news, with full details about the methodology and results published elsewhere.5 Only controlled experiments can provide convincing evidence to resolve issues of causality and thus overcome many of the limitations of cross-sectional survey research. Nevertheless, the findings show that, even after applying a battery of controls for social and attitudinal factors, watching negative television news had no impact on party preferences, whereas exposure to positive news significantly increased that party's support.6 If we can extrapolate from this context, this strengthens the argument for an interactive two-way virtuous circle, in which prior positive attitudes stimulate attention to the news and campaign messages, and that attention reinforces positive engagement. Through repeatedly reading or watching news about politics and public affairs, broadly defined, people gradually acquire practical information that helps them to make voting decisions, that prompts them to get involved in community organizations, and that encourages them to trust the political process. Through the virtuous circle, the news media serve to further activate those who are already most active. Those who are less predisposed towards political life will be more immune to political messages. If the pool of activists is gradually shrinking, so that society is dividing between the information-rich and information-poor, then that process legitimately should raise fears about its effects on mass democracy. But if, as argued here, in postindustrial societies the news media have become diversified over the years, in terms of channels, availability, levels, and even the definition of news, this means that today infor318

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A VIRTUOUS CIRCLE?

mation about public affairs (broadly defined) is reaching audiences over a wider range of societal levels and with more disparate interests. In this situation, the effects of the virtuous circle should gradually ripple out to broader sectors of society. Such an effect is still consistent with other trends in society, such as increasingly critical attitudes among citizens, as discussed elsewhere.7 A citizenry that is better informed and more highly educated, with higher cognitive skills and more sources of information, may well become increasingly critical of governing institutions, with declining affective loyalties towards traditional representative bodies such as parties and parliaments. But increasing criticism from citizens does not necessarily reduce civic engagement; indeed, it can have the contrary effect. The conclusions reached here do not diminish the gravity of many major problems that threaten the vitality of democracy in postindustrial societies, whether low levels of electoral turnout in the United States and Switzerland, violent conflict in Northern Ireland and the Basque region, pervasive political cynicism in Italy and Japan, or endemic political corruption in Mexico and Turkey. The multiple hazards facing transitional political systems like Russia, Indonesia, and Nigeria, stranded midway between an authoritarian past and an uncertain future, are even more threatening and intransigent. But these problems can best be understood as rooted in deep-seated flaws within the political systems and institutional arrangements in these societies, rather than as representing general problems common across democracies, still less problems caused by political communication per se. Blaming the news media is easy, but ultimately that is a deeply conservative strategy, especially in a culture skeptical of regulation of the free press, and it diverts attention from the urgent need for real reforms to democratic institutions, which should have our undivided attention.

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